When I was a teenager, right around the time I knew everything, my mother used to tell me I only remembered the bad things.
When I told stories about my family, they didn’t revolve around family happy times, barbecues, and vacations; they focused on painful memories and all the ways I felt my family had “ruined my life.”
The same applied to friends and milestones in my life. I chronically remembered and rehashed the worst experiences.
In fact, straight through college I followed up every introductory handshake with a dramatic retelling of my life story, focusing on a laundry list of grievances about people who had done me wrong.
It was as if I was competing for most royally screwed over in life, like there was some kind of prize for being the most tragic and victimized. (Full disclosure: I hoped that prize was compassion and unconditional love. It was more like discomfort and avoidance).
Not everyone is as negative or needy as woe-is-me-younger Sascha was, but I’ve noticed that many of us have something in common with my misguided past self: We focus on how we’ve been hurt far more than how we’ve been helped.
A lot of studies suggest that to some degree we complain because we’re looking to connect with people who can relate to the universal struggles we all face (though in some cases, complaining is a constructive way to find solutions to problems as opposed to a chronic need to vent negativity). I think there’s more to it, though.
When we complain about everything that’s gone wrong or everyone who has done us wrong, we’re drowning in our self-involvement.
It’s an epidemic in an individualistic culture where self-reliance, autonomy, and the pursuit of personal gain can leave us feeling isolated and pressured to succeed. This may not be true for everyone, but I know when I get caught up complaining, nine out of ten times what I need to do is stop obsessing about the circumstances of my life.
It’s taken me a long time, but I’ve learned we don’t need to live life in a constant state of reaction to things that seem difficult or unfair. We don’t have to be the victims of bad coming at us. Our lives don’t have to be the sum of our problems—not if we take responsibility for putting good into the world.
That starts by fostering a greater appreciation for our interdependence. We are not alone. The world is not against us, and we don’t have to be against each other. We don’t have to let our fears, insecurities, and wants boil over inside us until we’re all a bunch of incompatible toxic chemicals waiting to explode the second we collide.
You can always find a negative story to tell—some situation when another person was insensitive, selfish, uncaring, unfair, or just plain wrong. You can also find an underlying struggle that doesn’t justify but might explain their behavior.
If you absolutely can’t channel that patience and compassion you can always find at least one good thing someone did in your day.
When that stranger held the elevator open, when your coworker let you take the lead in your meeting, when your mother called just to say she loves you; they’re all reminders people are looking out for you—maybe not all of them, and maybe not all the time, but probably more than you notice.
An even better way to honor our interconnection: be someone else’s positive story. Be the kindness that reminds someone else the world is not against them. Give them an anchor of positivity to find later if their circumstances seem overwhelming.
If you’ve ever ended a stressful day with a long hug—the type that’s so needed and loving it’s near impossible not to relax and receive—you know the power of a simple gesture.
1. Try to accept people with an open mind and refrain from making judgments, which are often wrong anyway.
2. Let them know how much you appreciate them.
3. Any deed done for someone else is a kind one when you don’t expect something in return.
4. Do little things like hold doors open or let folk go in or out first. Little things can make a big difference for someone who’s not having a great day.
5. Accept them for who they are and who they strive to be.
6. Let them know they’ve made you smile.
7. Be with them when they need you. For the rest of the time, let them be free.
8. Tell them the truth.
9. Tell them why they make a difference in your life that no one else could possibly make—why their particular brand of “special” makes the world a better place for everyone they meet in it.
10. Help them help themselves and be independent.
11. Believe in them and give them hope.
12. Give a simple well meaning smile.
13. The kindest thing you can do for someone else is to take good care of your own mind, body and soul. This enables kindness in all things.
14. Spend time listening with the intent of learning.
15. The best thing my parents ever taught me—the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you!
16. Be there for them when they fall and not say I told you so.
17. Give them the space to be.
18. Lend your shoulder to cry on.
19. Thank them for being themselves.
20. Take a moment to send someone a note thanking them for something they have done for you in the past.
21. Treat each person with respect for his or her individuality.
22. Offer encouragement after a failure.
24. Pay attention to them. From the clerk at the store to your kids at home, most people just want to be heard and acknowledged. Understanding comes later, but everyone can pay attention now.
25. Listen to someone without trying to fix their problem.
What do you think? What’s the kindest thing you can do for someone else?